SeaWorld to end its orca shows

November 10, 2015 • 11:15 am

Over the years I’ve written several posts (and letters to newspapers and aquaria) protesting the captivity of large marine mammals and their use in “shows” as a form of entertainment (see here, here and here, for example). SeaWorld in San Diego, California and Orlando, Florida were notorious places for this kind of captivity and entertainment, and pressure on that organization built after the release of the 2013 documentary film Blackfish, exposing SeaWorld’s inhumane treatment of orcas (killer whales; Orcinus orca).

I don’t think SeaWorld ever recovered from that movie (full disclosure: I haven’t yet seen it). And, according to yesterday’s Guardian, the “theme park” is ending its killer-whale shows in San Diego next year in response to customer complaints:

Joel Manby, SeaWorld’s chief executive, said he had listened to guests’ criticism of its Shamu stadium whale circus and it would end the “theatrical killer whale experience” in San Diego by the end of 2016.

He said the company will replace its Californian Shamu show – in which whales dive, jump and splash guests to the demands of their trainers – with “an all new orca experience focused on the natural environment [of the whales]”.

“We are listening to our guests, evolving as a company, we are always changing,” Manby said as he unveiled a new corporate strategy on Monday. “In 2017 we will launch an all new orca experience focused on natural environment [of whales]. 2016 will be the last year of our theatrical killer whale experience in San Diego.”

There are, however, two remaining problems:

[Manby] said the company will replace its Californian Shamu show – in which whales dive, jump and splash guests to the demands of their trainers – with “an all new orca experience focused on the natural environment [of the whales]”.

“We are listening to our guests, evolving as a company, we are always changing,” Manby said as he unveiled a new corporate strategy on Monday. “In 2017 we will launch an all new orca experience focused on natural environment [of whales]. 2016 will be the last year of our theatrical killer whale experience in San Diego.”

. . . The orca whale theatrical performances will continue at SeaWorld’s other killer whale parks in San Antonio, Texas, and Orlando, Florida.

Problem One, then, is that the San Diego facility will still be keeping orcas in captivity. While some readers may disagree, I feel that these creatures belong in the wild, where they roam, and were evolved to roam, over hundreds of kilometers of open sea and where they also live in social groups: something not possible when they’re in Whale Jail. Further, if the San Diego facility is closing because of customer complaints, why not the facilities in San Antonio and Orlando? Why will whales still be doing their tricks there?

Second, ending the orca shows at only one facility implies that SeaWorld is making its decision purely on the grounds of profit rather than genuine concern for the animals. And although the San Diego facility says it’s now concentrating on educating people about conservation of orcas, well, that species is not clearly endangered, and its cause isn’t helped by catching the whales and putting them in jail. If people want to learn about whales, the best thing to do is read about them and watch videos on YouTube. It’s not clear to me that whale shows and captive animals really help the species in the wild.

One more note: I’m told by some defenders of whale captivity that the animals don’t show any obvious stress in captivity, and get medical treatment and decent and reliable food. Well, imagine a Martian zoologist observing human prisoners in jail (especially if their captors were intelligent orcas). Those zoologists would draw the same conclusion.

h/t: Gravelinspector

42 thoughts on “SeaWorld to end its orca shows

  1. The orcas of Sea World can never be released into the wild. Most of them were captive-bred, and the rest were caught as very young calves from diverse pods. They grew up not knowing the orca social rules, so even if they could find a pod to release them into, they would probably commit many faux pas and be rejected 🙁

    The details of captive life for the orcas are in this book by an ex-trainer:

    1. p.s. in the book, the social world of the Sea World orcas is compared to “Lord of the Flies” — no adult whales participated in the rearing of the young 🙁

          1. There have been news reports on this here in SD (as you would expect). Sea World’s contention is that if you release these whales (born and bred in captivity) into the wild they would simply die. In fact, I believe this was tried (I think in Norway) and the whale was found dead on the beach not too long after release. That’s the dilemma the organization faces in trying to figure out what to do with its whales.

  2. Hi Jerry,

    As this is a moral issue, it depends upon personal sentiments about our use of animals for entertainment or other purposes.

    While I agree with your position on the Orcas, I would like to know if your views would be different if the Orcas were bred in captivity?

    Also, I’m curious how you feel about the use of animals in research, where they are also kept in captivity and are subjected to ‘unnatural’ treatments and environments.

    There is also the obvious moral issue surrounding the breeding and use of animals for our food.

    Finally, some hardcore vegans are morally opposed to keeping animals (your beloved cats!) as pets.

    Of course this disagreement is to be expected, as subjectivity and personal preference lie at the foundation of all moral arguments.

    1. Having associated with such hardcore vegans, I do know that they exist, but they’re very rare.
      In practice, since domesticated dogs and cats (and to a lesser degree, rabbits, Guinea pigs and other “cage animals”) are very much a human creation, I don’t have any real qualms over keeping them. Plus, as “Throat” says, they taste nice. I would expect numbers to decrease overall, but at a rate that can be accommodated by natural wastage (deaths) without the scare tactic of envisaging mass culling.
      Contrary to what is propagandised in the animal rights movement, most animals kept for vivisection are actually kept in a pretty low stress, good condition. You do not want the confounding factor of some of your test animals being unwell, differently-stressed, whatever. Consistency and quality of care is the hall mark of a well-run animal house.
      (This is not to deny that there are abuses. And those abuses should be punished. But for well-designed, publicly conducted research into both human and animal health, and I include basic genetic research in that, I can see that the eventual benefits outweigh the costs.)
      The majority of the SeaWorld orcas are captive bred.

    2. Whilst they may be ‘captive bred’, it is impossible for them to exhibit ‘normal’ behaviour in a ‘jail cell’. They are acting exactly as you’d expect if they were an institutionalised human.

      I look forward to the day when we no longer see animals such as these abused for our entertainment.

  3. A remaining problem – and one which is likely to remain – is that many of SeaWorld’s orcas are captive bred, which means that they very likely don’t have the experience to hunt freely. It’s a very open question as to whether an animal which has been in captivity for 33 plus years after being captured at under a year old, has any practically useful memories of the wild.
    If you look at the potential costs of looking after their stock of animals for another 50 or 60 years with negligible income from tourists, then I would suspect that SeaWorld are already technically bankrupt, in that their assets are out-weighed by their liabilities.
    If anyone here is a shareholder (unlikely, I suspect), you’ll probably make yourself really unpopular by tabling a question on that topic at the AGM.

    1. Imagine human children living their lives only around other human children, with overseers that can’t communicate in human sounds. Then drop a teenager into a fully developed town with several families, a clan, and a well developed dialect completely unrelated to whatever human sounds the child knows. How successful would that be?

      1. Oh, I accept the aptness of the simile.
        OTOH, the way human children develop creole languages out of the pidgins their parents assemble is an interesting field of linguistics. Not enough to justify conducting the experiment, but potentially something to monitor in the cleanup of the existing problem of caged Orcas (and other dolphins).

  4. I’ve always thought that sea life exhibits could at least be better designed to allow the larger mammals more room to roam. We’ve had shark tanks with plexiglass walkways running under them for decades now. Why not create the same ‘under view’ design for dolphin, orca, sea lions, etc? And make their enclosures big – a square mile or more. Basically just run a ‘human habitrail’ of plexiglass walkways around the near sea floor and section off a bit. Yes that would be expensive, but larger size also means higher throughput of visitors, i.e. more dollars per hour raked in. It would be easy enough to use cameras and gps to keep track of where the animal is in the giant enclosure, so that visitors can be directed to the appropriate viewing sites.

    1. Another option would be to just semi-domesticate or at least desensitize wild populations to human viewing and contact. I’m thinking specifically of the sea lion colony at Pier 39 in San Francisco or the South American locations where dolphins have learned to cooperate with humans in fishing. Pier 39 is an incredible viewing experience, and no captivity was required to produce it.

      1. There are many webcams for spying on other animals in their natural habitat, and I think there are some orca ones. Viewing them live is awe-inspiring, but not really a requirement for human life.

    2. Why not create the same ‘under view’ design for dolphin, orca, sea lions, etc? And make their enclosures big – a square mile or more

      Because that would be very, very expensive.
      go to your local harbour, but the harbour master a beer, and ask him why he has only got one small dry dock instead of two – or one twice the size. you’re looking at the same amount of tankage.
      Don’t forget that every cubic metre of that water is going to need to be filtered regularly to remove the seagull shit, the blow-in food wrappers, and the whale shit.

      1. I was thinking specifically of a more ‘open’ fencing that would allow normal fluid exchange with the ocean on the other side of the fence. Think chain link fence. So no ‘tank cleaning’ needed.

        I accept that this might be impractical to do today. But surely we can figure out a way to allow mass viewing of wild orcas with fairly minimal impact, and/or mass viewing of unreleasable captive animals in far larger and more natural settings.

        1. I don’t know if anyone has ever tried caging an orca out at sea. I do know that running a fish farm is more expensive than most people who get into the business expect, because the netting gets torn open by seals, the seals just climb over the rims of the cages and chow down. There are a multitude of ways things can get in. The same sort of problems would be faced with trying to keep an intelligent, powerful animal inside.
          Probably the simplest solution along those lines would be to fence off the mouth of a fjord somewhere, so that you minimize the amount of fencing which would need upkeep … but from a diver-safety point of view (not just cost, but cost would be a real issue too), you’d need to find a fjord which has an outer lip no more than 30 ft water depth.
          It’s potentially do-able, but it’s not going to be cheap.

          1. We’ve built some pretty darn big harbors using artificial breakwaters. So the solution for US-based theme parks would be to do something like that, and leave an opening 20′ wide and 10-30′ deep or so, so you can get a service boat in there if you need it, and just fence the opening.

            So okay, I doubt anything like that’s been tried on the scale I originally suggested (a mile square). But again going with the concept of not making good the enemy of perfect, even giving the orca a harbor-sized space rather than a tank as its living space is a big improvement.

          2. Hmmm, re-purposing a military harbour … that’s a possibility. Appropriate changes to get good tidal flushing would be a challenge to design, but by no means an impossibility – it’s the sort of good PR job that trainees at a civil engineering design house could be assigned (not that i’m trying to save SeaWorld money, it’s just the influence of the Scots all around.)
            The big problem would be getting a realistic depth – I don’t know the depth ranges over which Orcas hunt, but harbours tend to only use the top 20 or so ft of water, and deep anchorages are a “grounds for advertising” feature of harbours.
            But yes, it’s a constructive suggestion.

  5. I have never cared for the idea of capturing animals like this for the entertainment of people. It’s not good for the animals and the people should find something else for entertainment. It is like elephants in the circus…kind of pathetic.

  6. I have been to Sea World many times when living in San Diego long ago, at a time when this issue was discussed, but there were no signs of its making headway.
    I saw the killer whale theater on two occasions. I must say that it was an awesome but even then troubling experience. The animals are incredible in their intelligence and overwhelming strength, and it was a spectacular show. But yes, it was also wrong to even keep such creatures in captivity, let alone make them perform like circus bears. It must be boring for them, despite the care and efforts spent in keeping them stimulated. Having a non-performance exhibit does not seem like a solution either. They need the open sea and they need to live in extended families.

    1. My son and I went to Sea World in San Antonio. What a mistake! We were very disturbed by the circus-like tricks performed by what should have been wild animals with an ocean of freedom. Not a well-thought out vacation weekend, but a good learning experience.

  7. If the orcas are going to be in captivity, I think using them in shows is a good idea. It gives the orcas something to think about, challenges to meet. Better not to have them at all, of course, but if they’re there, they should have challenges.

  8. You can watch the documentary here:

    If I remember well, Keiko, the orca rescued from a theme park in Mexico lived in a sea pen for a few months or years. He was then released and lived in the wild for a while, he seemed to miss human contact because he was often seen near marinas trying to get close to people. He died of pneumonia but at least he got to roam free in the seas again.

  9. I would make two points: all of the Orcas in the Blackfish documentary showed stress issues. I highly suggest Jerry and those who have not seen it to watch it. Maybe it will change the notion that born in captivity justifies ongoing captivity.

    Also, I would say that “born in captivity” does not mitigate the biological drives for the freedom of movement wild Orcas have. Attempting to release bred whales might be hard but i do not see an argument for it being impossible. Moral obligation would force it upon us to try.

    1. I think the lack of a social network based on thousands of years of social evolution is the worst part. They don’t know how to act like whales. Even if they could swim long distances, would they still be young enough to learn the rules of orca society? Would the other orcas accept them? Or would they be free but lonely, swimming around for fish but otherwise having no stimulation?

    2. Agreed! I’m not sure about releasing whales that are incompetent to hunt and live in the open sea, but they shouldn’t be breeding animals in captivity that have evolved instincts to swim free in social groups. They need to stop breeding them and stop keeping them.

      1. Especially since seeing the creatures in their natural habitat is now, more than ever, possible through films. I’d trade one orca special on PBS for 100 visits to captives at Sea World.

        1. Animatronics are so good that you can still get splashed by a big leathery swimming mammal if that’s what you need in your life.

          1. Sea World has been advertising on TV here in SD for awhile (fighting back against the animal activists)that they haven’t captured whales in the wild for thirty-five years (the current crop was all born in captivity). They have no survival skills in the wild. Releasing such whales into the ocean is a death sentence for them.

            For the above posts talking about Fjords, there are none along the CA coast. Mission Bay (where Sea World is located) is just a harbor, located north of SD Harbor, full of mostly pleasure boats and quite shallow.

            Sea World wants to build a larger pen for the whales but the Coastal Commission will only allow that if the whales are denied the opportunity to breed. Sea World plans to fight that in court saying, in effect, that such treatment is “inhumane.” They may be revising their plans though, instead, transferring the whales to San Antonio and Orlando where they will get a more friendly reception from those publics. Sea World’s revenues in SD have been dropping for a number of years now.

  10. Zoos seem to be more cognizant of patron/customer safety than animal comfort, and the standards of accreditation by AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) aren’t really that high.

    For that matter, zoos and aquariums only HAVE to be accredited by United States Department of Agriculture [not sure why], United States Environmental Protection Agency, Drug Enforcement Administration, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which are mostly focused on human safety.

    By contrast, accreditation with the AZA is voluntary.

    There’s an organization called
    Citizens Lobbying for Animals in Zoos
    but it’s efforts are confined to California.

  11. All good things must come to an end. I was lucky enough to catch an orca show way back in 2002 on my one and only visit to the US mainland.

  12. If this consultant is correct, it’s possible (and perhaps even probable) Orlando and San Antonio will follow San Diego’s lead:

    “As SeaWorld Entertainment moves toward revamping the iconic Shamu show, it’s unclear whether its other two namesake parks, in Orlando and San Antonio, will follow suit.

    Theme park consultant Dennis Speigel said he believes it’s inevitable.

    ‘You can’t do it at one park and not do it at the other parks,” said Speigel, president of Ohio-based International Theme Park Services, Inc. “That’s not the way our industry operates.'”

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